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The Independent Critic

John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Annika Marks, Moon Bloodgood, Robin Weigert
Ben Lewin
Rated R
95 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
Deleted Scenes; Five Featurettes; Trailer: Ultraviolet Code

 "The Sessions" is One of 2012's Best Films 
I am not a virgin.

I know. I know. You don't actually care. You're probably thinking to yourself "Just review the damn movie, Richard." I'll get to that, but first I have to sit here at my computer writing words that feel grossly inadequate when being used to try to describe how I feel having just seen writer/director Ben Lewin's extraordinary film The Sessions.

I haven't wept like this in a film for a very long time.

Tears of joy. Tears of sadness. Tears of familiarity. Tears of healing and humiliation, ache and exhilaration.

To acknowledge that I identified deeply with The Sessions is important, while to deny it would be a massive deception. I simply can't deny that The Sessions was more than a film to me - It was a variation upon my own life experiences.

My fears. My doubts. My insecurities. My joys. My sorrows. My triumphs. My body. My needs. My wants. My desires.

And yes, my sex.

By now, the majority of you who are my regular readers know that I am a paraplegic and double amputee living with spina bifida. You also know that I am a sexual abuse survivor.

You may have an inkling of how all of this has affected my life journey, but there's an even better chance you have no idea and, perhaps, you don't even care.

You're probably still saying "C'mon, Richard. Just write the damn review already."

I'm getting there.

I still remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the first woman who would ever touch me in a way that would really mean something. This wasn't a nurse checking my blood pressure or a home health aide helping me in the bathroom. Oh my god, this was simply extraordinary and it came out of nowhere and completely changed everything I'd ever thought and felt about my body. I don't know if we were in love or not, but I know that she made my body feel things I'd never believed possible.

I still remember the other stuff, too.

I remember marrying a woman who was horrified to touch me.

I remember the time when a woman got me naked only because she was curious. Once her curiosity had been satisfied, she promptly left.

I remember being laughed at. I remember the women with good intentions, who really wanted to be comfortable with my disability but just couldn't quite get there.

I remember trying to have sex standing up, because I thought it was more manly. I remember trying to take one partner from behind, but more resembling a weeble that wouldn't stop wobbling.

I remember body fluids - Not the fun ones. Well, unless you're into that sort of thing.

I'm not.

But, the really vivid memories are the good ones. I remember the first time someone gently touched my scars - and didn't recoil. I remember the first woman who ever really touched my curved and scarred spine. I remember those times when someone reached through my own tattered memories, insecurities, doubts, fears and seemingly impenetrable scars and how we managed to share something far more special than I'd ever imagined possible.

I remember feeling a lot like Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a 38-year-old man who was stricken by polio as a child and who has pretty much depended his entire life on an iron lung for his very existence.

You should know that there was a real Mark O' Brien, upon whose short story, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," this film is based. Mark is either blessed or cursed by having feeling throughout his body, but he is most definitely cursed by being unable to control any of it. He has arrived at 38 years of age aware that his days are increasingly limited, and he longs for what he views as the ultimate transition from childhood to adulthood.

Having sex.

I've seen the looks of pity, or at the very least surprise, when I am seen publicly with an attractive woman.

"I wonder if that's his caregiver?," I've heard muttered silently.

"Or maybe his sister?"

I've heard the admonishments given to those I've dated, mostly well meaning yet ultimately judgmental. I've listened to mothers and fathers express their very realistic concerns that their daughter would only end up taking care of me.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

After consulting with his priest (William H. Macy), Mark decides to hire a sex surrogate. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is not a prostitute, as she explains at their first session. She is simply a woman who understands, admittedly is paid to understand, but who is willing to help Mark go where his heart and mind have long been afraid to go.

The Sessions isn't really a film about sex. It penetrates much deeper than that (Sorry, couldn't resist!).

But, it's true.

The Sessions is about intimacy and friendship and kindness and having the courage to be love and be loved despite all our baggage, our scars, our impossibilities and neuroses. Sex may be the most Mark's symbol of manhood, but it is not his real desire. If you have followed the career of John Hawkes for any length of time, then you are likely already aware that he is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors despite having received quite a bit of acclaim in recent years in films such as Me and You and Everyone We Know, Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. This may very well be the best performance by an able-bodied actor portraying an individual disability that I've ever seen. There isn't an ounce of pretense or falseness or stereotype in Hawkes' absolutely mesmerizing performance. If there is any justice in Hollywood, and that's debatable, the Academy Award is his for the taking.

There simply hasn't been a better performance by an actor in film this year.

As a longtime Helen Hunt fan, I remember celebrating her return to cinema in last year's Soul Surfer, a faith-based film that reached crossover audiences and led to a semi-renewal of Hunt's career. If you've been a fan as long as I have, you'll also remember her from a 1992 indie gem called The Waterdance. In The Waterdance, she played the married lover to writer Eric Stoltz who stays by his side when he becomes seriously injured in a fall. I remember feeling more than a little bit of a crush as I watched Hunt in a scene dealing with a catheter.

"There's the woman for me," I thought to myself.

The Waterdance has long been one of my favorite films, but without hesitation I acknowledge that The Sessions is a vastly superior film in virtually every way. Hunt's performance here is honest and vulnerable and raw and almost stunning in its quiet and fragile intimacy. She is seen here fully nude on more than one occasion, her 49-year-old body glistening and glowing with authenticity and beauty and the sort of serene dedication that her character really needed. An Academy Award nomination should be a foregone conclusion, because Hunt is so fully surrendered in these scenes that it is easy to forget she's standing before you nude because she is revealing so much more.

While Hawkes and Hunt are the leads, Lewin has crafted a film where every character and every scene matters. In many ways, William H. Macy's Father Brendan serves as the film's comic relief. Yet, Father Brendan is so much more than comic relief in this film. He introduces the film's more universal themes - faith, hope, love, commitment and so much more. Macy's Father Brendan made me laugh, but he also made me think and feel and reflect and process.

Moon Bloodgood gives a quietly satisfying performance as Vera, one of Mark's assistants. Annika Marks shines as an earlier assistant whose semi-unintentionally romantic attention begins to arouse these long repressed feelings he has inside. In a relatively brief role, Robin Weigert resonates as an unexpected connection for Mark.

Everything about The Sessions feels true, ranging from the equipment utilized to deal with Mark's illness for this 1980's set film to the words and the attitudes that the film projects. Lewin is himself a 66-year-old polio survivor who uses braces, and his obvious familiarity with this scenario gives the film a sense of authenticity that simply cannot be faked. The film was originally titled The Surrogate when it played at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where the film picked up the Audience Award- Dramatic and a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting while also being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It's refreshing to see Fox Searchlight genuinely pushing the film with multiple promo screenings even in my hometown of Indianapolis.

It's also refreshing to see Lewin avoid the usual Hollywood traps and cliche's, with several choices made in the film ringing as surprisingly true but running against the usual Hollywood way of doing things. Marco Beltrami's original music is a richly developed piece of music that exudes all the warmth and humanity of the film, while D.P. Geoffrey Simpson does an extraordinary job of capturing the intimacy and vulnerability of this beautiful story. The Sessions even utilizes two actors with disabilities who aren't just an afterthought, but whose presence in the film adds an even greater richness to the film's human tapestry.

It is very seldom that I find virtually everything that I want within the confines of a single film, but such was the experience with the deeply moving and funny and life-affirming The Sessions.

I laughed. I cried. I remembered. I celebrated.

I had sex.

Okay. Maybe not. But, oh how I wish.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic